TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s health minister said Sunday that travel from China brought the new virus to the Middle Eastern country, amid concerns that coronavirus clusters in Iran, as well as in Italy and South Korea, could signal a serious new stage in its global spread.
Iran reported its first case of the virus last Wednesday, and six deaths from the illness since then. That’s the highest death toll from the virus outside of China, where the outbreak first emerged a couple months ago.
Iran has confirmed 28 cases in total in at least four different cities, including the capital, Tehran, so far.
Saeed Namaki told state TV that the virus came from China to the holy city of Qom in central Iran. He said that one the Iranian dead from the virus was a merchant who regularly shuttled between the two countries using indirect flights in recent weeks, after Iran stopped direct passenger flights to China.
Namaki also defended the government’s handling of the outbreak, saying it was being “transparent.” He said it would help make face-masks and sanitizers available for Iranians, amid concerns that stocks were running low in the capital’s pharmacies.
Iran is also producing kits for diagnosis of the infection, he added.
Namaki urged people not to visit Qom, which is a major destination for Shiite pilgrims.
“We obviously do not recommend traveling to Qom and other pilgrimage cities,” Namaki said.
The government has closed down schools and religious seminaries in the holy city of Qom, where the virus first killed two elderly patients last week. Schools in Tehran and four other cities were closed as well, starting Sunday for two days.
Iran has also set up 36 screening stations at different ports of entry to the country to check for possibly infected travellers, he added.
Iraq and Pakistan, which share borders with Iran, have already taken preventive measures to limit the spread of the virus from Iranian travellers.
Officials in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, which shares a long frontier with Iran, have declared an emergency as they seek to stop the spread of the virus via the Taftan border crossing with Iran.
Infected travellers from Iran already have been discovered in Lebanon and Canada.
Saudi Arabia has ordered anyone traveling from Iran to wait at least 14 days before entering the kingdom as it seeks to prevent the spread of the virus to the Muslim pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina.